Written by: Sifra Lentin
The Globalised Dawoodi Bohras of Bombay
The Mumbai headquartered Dawoodi Bohra community has a rich legacy of business, overseas maritime trade and today, a strong global community network that connects its 1 million faithful, wherever they are in real time. The community’s strength is its network, even 1,000 years ago, even without technology.
During the lockdown last year, Mumbai’s Dawoodi Bohra community captured attention in the media for its astute use of internet and mobile Apps to support its community. Food rations were delivered expediently and every home became a mosque, with Muharram and Ramadan prayers being telecast live. Although the Bohras are a traditional Ismaili Shia community, the embrace of technology comes easily to them, given the Indian Bohra’s historic proclivity to business and trade, which requires flexibility and resourcefulness.
Bohras are the Indian followers of the 21st Fatimid Imam al-Tayyib and his descendants, whose lineage traces back to followers of the 6th Imam Ismail in the 8th century and through him to Imam Ali and his wife Fatima, the son-in-law and daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. Their very name – Bohra — comes from the Gujarati Vohurvu, meaning to trade, indicating that most of the Indian converts (mostly Hindus) to Tayyibi Mustali Ismailism were traders. Mustafa Feeroz, lecturer and head of the English department at the Marol campus of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, a university for advanced Islamic Studies in Mumbai, says that Imam al-Mustali, the younger son of one of the great Fatimid Caliphs, the 18th Imam al-Mustansir and grandfather of the 21st Imam al-Tayyib, was the first to send religious emissaries in the 11th century from Egypt to the Indian Subcontinent to propagate the Ismaili faith. He points out, ‘These early preachers began their work in Gujarat and the Deccan.’
It resulted in conversions, the earliest having taken place in Cambay (now Khambhat), Paithan and Aurangabad. Khambhat was an important port in the Indian Ocean trading world during the Middle Ages, and the latter two were market towns, sources for the export of goods such as cotton and silk fabrics. It is likely that most converts were engaged in some form of trade or finance.
There is little doubt that these conversions and those that followed it, were peaceful. This is self-evident because soon after the death in 1094 CE of the Caliph Imam al-Mustansir in Cairo the Fatimid Empire went into decline due to infighting between two rival claimants – the Imams sons Nizar and al-Mustali — to the Caliphate. By 1171 CE the Fatimid Dynasty had collapsed and the Dawat (mission) had been shifted from Egypt to Yemen.
The Dawat shifts to Yemen
This occurred when the infant 21st Imam al-Tayyeb (whose followers are Tayyebi Mustali Ismailis and include India’s Shia Bohras) retired from public view and delegated the powers of the Dawat to his vicegerents, the first of whom lived in Yemen. As an article of faith, the Bohras believe that the current Imam, who is a direct descendant of the 21st Imam, is present on earth whether or not in public view. This means that while the Imam remains hidden, his vicegerent — al-dai al-mutlaq or the missionary with unrestricted authority — better known as the Syedna in India, takes on his mantle as the spiritual and temporal head of the global Dawoodi Bohra community. In spite of the political headwinds of persecution that this Ismaili sect faced in Yemen, the establishment of a missionary organisation or Dawat headed by an appointed leader or dai, a millennia ago, ensured not just survival but a networked presence early on in Yemen as well as parts of Southern Iraq, Persia and North Africa.
It was fortuitous that Yemen, which had active trading ties starting from the 9th century with the ports of Daybul in Sindh, Mandvi in Kutch and Porbandar and Khambhat in Kathiawar, should become the headquarters of this faith. It wasn’t unusual for Yemeni Arab merchants (who often doubled up as preachers), missionaries and mendicants to carry their faith with them to the west coast of India.
By the 15th century, the mission had been successful in Sindh, Gujarat and the Deccan and this would culminate in the transfer of the seat of the Dawat to India in the 16th century. The first dai of India was the 24th Dai, Syedna Yusuf Najmuddin, who went to Yemen after being appointed as dai and passed away there. The first dais to reside permanently in India were those in Ahmedabad, beginning with the 25th Dai Syedna Jalal Shamsuddin.
The death of the 26th dai in 1588 CE led to a succession quarrel between two factions of the community in India, the majority of whom supported Daud (or Dawood) bin Qutub Shah, as the rightful nominee of the previous dai. The minority Indian faction supporting Sulaiman bin Hassan, also supported by a majority of Yemeni Tayyebi Ismailis, broke away. This fallout resulted in the formation of the Dawoodi (supporters of Daud) Bohra community, whose headquarters since this schism has always been in India, although it kept shifting for the next 300 years from city to city before settling in British Bombay in the early 20th century.
One significant trajectory that the Indian Dawoodi Bohra took prior to the community’s migration to Bombay in large numbers by the early 19th century, was the settlement of traders, often with their families, in Muscat, Hormuz and the Omani dominions in East Africa – the islands of Zanzibar, Pate, the Lamu archipelago, the mainland Mrima Coast and Mombasa.
Community lore says that the first wave of Bohra traders migrating to East Africa took place in the aftermath of a severe drought in Kathiawar. The 43rd dai called 12,000 of his followers from this parched region to Surat, and provided food, work and lodgings for all of them. His only conditions were that they learn certain vocational skills and that he would give them their earnings only when it was time for them to leave Surat. When he disbursed lump sum payments to them at the end of their stay, many from this group decided to use this capital to venture forth to trade in East Africa. Family histories, like that of the successful 200-year-old Karimjee Jivanjee family headquartered in Dar es Salaam today, also speak of active encouragement by the visiting Hindu Bhatia trader, Sewjee Topan, then advisor to the Omani Sultan, to their founder’s father to send his son, Pirbhai, to Omani Zanzibar to seek his fortune.
It was from Zanzibar, which once hosted the largest Dawoodi Bohra settlement, that inroads were made into the East African mainland in the second half of the 19th century, in the wake of European colonisation in Tanganyika (German), Kenya and Uganda (British). It was then that Bombay’s connections with this region and with its British Indian subjects already resident there, became pivotal politically and administratively, because of its close proximity to East Africa. This triggered a second and larger wave of settlers from the city and its Presidency.
Almost parallel to this was an increasing settlement in the city itself, which also provided the springboard for trade and immigration to other Indian Ocean islands like Madagascar, Mayotte, Ceylon, South East Asia, as also to the Far East – mainland China, Hong Kong and Japan.
Bombay’s Dawoodi Bohra community
The key indicator that Bombay had a thriving Dawoodi Bohra settlement, is a community document of 1813, which refers to the first Bohra Masjid (today known as Badri Masjid) in the Fort area of the city being endowed by a local merchant Chandabhai Seth or his heirs. Another record from 1830-31, states that there were 150 to 200 Bohra shops in the vicinity of their mosque, on Bohra Bazaar Street, which runs parallel to Dadabhoy Naoroji Road, where Badri Masjid stands.
Notwithstanding this sizeable presence – the fact that the dai (Syedna) was officially acknowledged in 1772 by the English Company in Bombay as native nobility, and later nominated to the Bombay Presidency’s legislative council – Surat continued as the headquarters of the Dawoodi Bohra. In the meantime, an Amil or senior religious scholar was appointed early on to look after community affairs, indicating that there were over 50 Bohra families resident in the city.
The Bombay community – largely traders and shopkeepers– prospered greatly from the growing economic importance of the city, which was Urbs Prima In India or the first city of India. Travelers’ accounts over time tell of the community’s thrift, colourful clothes, cheerful disposition and enterprise. A vivid example is how the import of kerosene oil into Bombay gave rise to a new industry, with the Bohra traders buying empty tins for about two annas each and fashioning them into lanterns, boxes, trunks, oil pots and other articles for sale.
The first dai to live and work in Bombay is the 51st dai – Syedna Taher Saifuddin (d. 1965) – who is buried in the Raudat Tahera mausoleum in Bhendi Bazaar, as is the 52nd dai, his son Syedna Burhanuddin (d. 2014). Though the administrative headquarters shifted to Bombay sometime during the 51st dai’s leadership, the cultural ecosystem of Surat as epitomised by its over two hundred year old Dars-e-Saify, the foremost institute for higher Islamic studies, took decades to take root in Bombay. But today this loop is almost closed, with the Marol campus of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah university being established in Mumbai, and the fact that 21st century internet technology has made the Dawat in Mumbai accessible to its one million strong Dawoodi Bohra community abroad and in India, with the largest community still resident in Mumbai.
The Dawoodi Bohra diaspora is present in over 40 countries that are home to 500 sizeable communities. From a predominantly Indian Ocean merchant diaspora in the past, today, its young prefer to seek educational and professional opportunities in developed countries, like the United States. What remains unchanged is the Bohras’ traditional way of life, as lived through its rich and composite cuisine and its unique, ever-evolving language – Lisan al-Dawat – both of which connect the community across continents.
India and Yemen are the spiritual homeland of the Dawoodi Bohra community and the roots of its religious, political, economic and cultural history, but the turn of the 21st century has witnessed the community’s marked outward immigration from former strongholds in the east to the west. From older communities in India, Pakistan, East Africa, Sri Lanka and the Gulf countries, Bohra youngsters are seeking opportunities in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Australia.
This is changing the community in many ways, especially its occupational profile and family structure. Many more Bohras today are moving away from their traditional callings of trade and business and becoming doctors, IT professionals, lawyers and chartered accountants. Families have shrunk to reflect the society of their adopted homes in the West, becoming nuclear rather than remaining as extended joint families.
However, the community is now stronger than ever. Rather than being unmoored from the religion and traditions of their forefathers, these young families are in fact deeply interconnected with the Dawat (the Mission) here in Mumbai and their overseas brethren. This happens not only through a (now digital) formal administrative set-up but more importantly through a shared and evolving culinary heritage and an incremental common language – Lisan al-Dawat or the language of the Mission.
Bohra cuisine is well-known particularly in Western India where most of the community is concentrated – combined with the fact that Surat and now Mumbai are the community’s administrative headquarters. Those with Bohra friends, having relished the delicious ceremonial Bohra multi-course meal whilst seated at the traditional single thaal (a large round stainless steel platter) on celebratory occasions, like weddings for example. This is the public face of Bohra culture. Not many people realise that this festive multi-course meal which often includes signature dishes like the savoury mutton raan, fragrant dum gosht Bohra Biryani, Kuddal Paliddu, represents a rich culinary mix of Indian regional and international heritages. Lubaina Bandukwala, a Mumbai-based food writer explains, ‘Bohra cuisine is like the Bohra cultural ethos, which is composite yet unique. Like our language the Lisan al-Dawat which has words from Arabic, Urdu and Gujarati, our cuisine also draws from the heritage of places we settle in, that we pick up along the way. It makes us who we are,’ she says.
Amongst the earliest influences on Bohra cuisine is the Yemenite one, probably a result of the close interactions between the Subcontinent’s Bohra community and their brethren in Yemen. Just one among the continuum of engagements that have occurred since the 12th century when the Dawat shifted from Egypt to Yemen, was the appointment of the first Indian Dai or Syedna of the Tayyebi Ismaili Shias – the 24th Syedna, Yusuf Najmuddin – who though from Siddhpur in India, went to reside in Yemen. This also coincided with a period of great circulations of traders between the Subcontinent’s west coast where the Bohras were mostly resident and Yemen. The Syedna being Indian must have attracted his followers here in the Subcontinent to travel to Yemen more often.
It is from Yemen that the Surti Bohra specialty — Sagla Bagla, a thin flaky multi-layered sweetmeat with mawa and crushed pistachios in its centre – originates. Rizwana Dhoon, who has written three Bohra cookbooks and was formerly a caterer for Bohra functions, describes it as a ‘mithai like a Surti version of the Middle-Eastern Baklava, but we have made certain changes to it. The Baklava has only nuts, in Sagla Bagla we also put mawa (thickened burnt milk), sugar and a little ground pistachio nuts.’ The multiple crusts of this sweetmeat are so delicate and flaky after it is taken out of the oven that care has to be taken to cut it into triangular portions before it is baked. The end result is a crumbly melt-in-your-mouth delicacy, often served at weddings.
Another Bohra specialty with Yemenite roots, is Sufoot, a cold dish made up of layered rice pancakes, whose fillings are beaten yogurt, mustard and salt with cucumber pieces, boiled mincemeat either of mutton or beef, and a mix of carrots and peas on the topmost layer. The Hulbo or the Yemeni Hilbah (fenugreek), is a dip made by Surti Bohras out of fenugreek powder soaked overnight and then ground with lime juice, chillies, garlic and salt. This dish is an acquired taste because of the slightly bitter after-taste, which makes it unpalatable for those who haven’t grown up eating it.
Both Bandukwala and Dhoon are originally from Surat and are in agreement that Surat still remains the culinary epicenter for Bohra cuisine, being as it was prior to the 20th century, the headquarters of the Dawoodi Bohra Dawat for almost a century. It is here – Surat was an important Mughal port city — that every possible overseas and regional influence amalgamated. The Mughlai style Bohra biryani – distinguishable from other Indian biryanis as the meat, yogurt, birista (fried onion) and spices including the fragrant shahzeera are cooked in par-boiled Basmati rice using the dum or pressure method, is one. So is the popular Rajasthani Ghevar (a milk mithai) which the Surti Bohras have made their own by preparing a fluffier, lighter version.
Signature dishes from other Bohra communities too have added distinct flavours to the Bohra festive menu. The delicious Kaparwanchi sheekh kababs, the Khambhati tikri (a mithai) and the Aradhya Ladvos (Arad dal ladoos) from Sidhpur, Gujarat, are what make Bohra food such an amalgam of aromas.
Though the repertoire of traditional dishes that can be prepared on festive and celebratory occasions are mind-boggling, the innovative batyaras’ (professional cooks) versions of Russian pattice, Chinese fried rice and noodles, Russian pulao – if the host is willing to risk the jibes of the purists – can also be thrown into this happy mix.
However, Bohra celebratory menus aren’t just about overwhelming guests with a surfeit of food. In recent years, care is taken to ensure there is no wastage at functions, with smaller portions being served in every course. Where once there were two servings of mithas (sweet dish), there is now just one, with dessert continuing to be served at the beginning of a meal ‘Bohra style’, rather than at the end as is normally done.
Food is central to an observant Dawoodi Bohra’s family and community life, whether in India or overseas. The strong belief is that a family and community that dines together, stays together.
Most Bohra families ensure that at least one family meal in a day is eaten in the shared thaal. Community meals at the mosque or jamatkhana (community dining hall) are almost always served in a thaal, thereby introducing children in western diaspora to their heritage.
Food is viewed by the Dawoodi Bohras through multiple lenses. First, its importance in providing sustenance, hence niyaz or feeding those in need is considered a duty and not charity. Bandukwala says, ‘A housewife practices niyaz on a daily basis, so if we make a gravy dish, we always make more sarvo or gravy because although you may not have much meat in it you never know when a neighbour might need food from you.’
Second, gender equality is emphasised as the women of the house eat at the thaal with the rest of the family. Last, special foods mark auspicious days, especially the numerous memorial days that punctuate the Bohra Misri calendar.
It is these religious, social and cultural traditions that Dawoodi Bohra communities carry with them when relocating to countries like Canada and the United States. Cookbook author Rizwana Dhoon who is visiting family in Houston, a city which has about 450 Dawoodi Bohra families and is one of the larger Bohra communities in the US says, ‘In Houston the community is a mix of Bohras from Pakistan, many from East Africa that is Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, Indians of course and a few from the Far East and Europe too.’ There is a great curiosity regarding East African Bohra foods, like Mishkaki (beef skewers) and Kuku Paka (coconut milk gravy). Often, by popular demand, menus for community meals are drawn from the signature dishes of different communities. It helps to introduce people from different parts of the world to each other through their food.
If food is a binder interlinking the old with the new, it is the incremental efforts of the worldwide organisation of the Dawat itself that tries to promote cultural integration through the development of a common language – Lisan al-Dawat — to break down linguistic barriers and enable the community to read the Quran in its original Arabic. The Lisan al-Dawat is essentially a Gujarati language in vocabulary and grammar but is written in the Arabic script, making it accessible to most. Arabic words are introduced into its vocabulary periodically by the Syedna during his sermons. By a happy coincidence, the Lisan al-Dawat is also easy to understand for the North Indian Urdu-speaking Bohras, as Urdu is effectively a bridging language for both Gujarati and Arabic.
It is this kind of innovativeness combined with the Bohra’s willingness to experiment in the cultural sphere – like the culinary and linguistic – by throwing together seemingly disparate elements that has helped create a composite cultural ethos, unique only to the Dawoodi Bohra, wherever they may reside.
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